Nebraska late-term abortion doctor plans expansion into Iowa

Posted on: November 15th, 2010 by Melissa

A Nebraska doctor who is one of only a few nationally who continues to offer late-term abortion services to women has announced that his practice will expand across the state line into Council Bluffs as well as into two additional states.

Dr. LeRoy Carhart is an outspoken friend of the late Dr. George Tiller, who was gunned down in his church foyer in 2009 by an anti-abortion activist. Carhart said restrictions placed by Nebraska lawmakers such as banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy on the unproven premise of fetal pain have prompted the expansion.

News of the expansion rippled throughout the public over the weekend after Carhart gave an exclusive interview to KETV in Omaha, Neb., last week as a formal announcement. Plans for such an expansion, however, have been common knowledge among those in the reproductive justice community for quite some time due to fundraising appeals to gather the estimated $1.5 million needed to open the new facilities.

“The opening of The Carhart Centers for Sexual & Reproductive Health will increase access to a wide variety of health care services to women and men in these underserved areas,” read one such appeal. “The Carhart Centers will also address the shortage of abortion providers by offering a full range of abortions plus sexual and reproductive services, including adoption. Each of the centers will maintain an additional focus on health care for gay, lesbian and transgendered clients, as well as those affected by HIV/AIDS.”

The clinics, which are planned for Iowa, Indiana and Maryland (just outside of Washington, D.C.), will offer elective early abortions, late second and third trimester abortion care when medical indications are present, contraception service, sexual and reproductive counseling and education, vasectomies, rapid HIV testing, adoption services and a wide range of other reproductive health services.

Although Carhart has gathered enough funds to open the Maryland location, he continues to accept donations for the other two clinics, which are tentatively scheduled to be opened in January. The solicitations for tax-deductible donations indicate that any interest income from the gathered monies would be used to provide abortion services for women in need.

Although Carhart and other reproductive justice organizations have called the new Nebraska law unconstitutional and have pledged to fight it through the courts, opening the new clinics outside of Nebraska, Carhart said, will allow his practice to continue regardless of the length of the court battle.

The opening of the facility in the Washington, D.C. area — to which no address has yet been provided — is set to coincide with a workshop by the National Right to Life organization. At that workshop, the group hopes to push activists in other states to pressure legislators to pass a law with restrictions similar or identical to those in Nebraska.

With the turnover of the Iowa House and Office of Governor to Republicans, and given the ongoing battles by anti-abortion activists in Iowa, it seems likely that such a bill might make an appearance in 2011 or 2012 sessions.

Troy Newman, who leads the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, told The New York Times he “feel[s] like a little boy on Christmas morning” when considering GOP gains in many states and how that could translate to further restrictions on women’s health care options.

“Which package do you open up first?” Newman asked.

Just like the brewing battles on the legality of same-sex marriage in Iowa, the only firewall against further restrictions on abortion is the current slim-majority maintained by state Democrats in the Iowa Senate. Unlike the same-sex marriage issue, however, the Democratic majority in the Senate has not had a difficult time maintaining a solid front against additional abortion restrictions.

Identical bills were introduced into the Iowa House and Senate during the 2010 session that were aimed at making telemedicine abortions using the prescription mifepristone illegal. The proposed bills were submitted by Republicans, never garnered Democratic support, and were subsequently buried in committee, despite major demonstrations by the Iowa Right to Life group. The battle over the use of telemedicine for abortion services continues, but is currently restricted to the Iowa Board of Medicine, which has yet to issue a ruling.

Nebraska’s bill banning abortion after 20 weeks on the premise of fetal pain is a landmark in the ongoing state battles to determine what restrictions are and are not feasible under federal rulings. It relies on the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Gonzales v. Carhart, which appears to provide an opening for states to place additional restrictions on abortion services, so long as the restrictions are logical and medicinal. Nebraska lawmakers, who heard multiple doctors from the anti-abortion medical group named the Christian Medical Association contend that a fetus can feel pain after 20 weeks, appeared to believe that they were following this new federal spirit that has been attached to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

By choosing to institute the ban at 20 weeks, however, Nebraska lawmakers thumbed their nose at more than three decades of legal precedent regarding fetal viability, which has previously been considered 24 weeks and was not addressed by the Gonzales decision.

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